Whether in bustling cities or remote villages, the 1880s and 1890s were years of terrifying upheaval for Africans. Fleet upon fleet of foreign soldiers armed with new weaponry – and a sense of entitlement – descended, seemingly overnight.
In the space of just 20 years, 90 per cent of Africa was brought under European occupation. Europe had captured a continent.
Europe was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. The advent of the machine was transforming the cities there into the workshop of the world – a workshop in need of raw materials. It was the dawn of industrial-scale production, modern capitalist economies and mass international trade. And in this new industrial era the value of Africa rocketed – not only for its materials and as a strategic trade route, but also as a market for the goods Europe now produced in bulk.
But the scramble for Africa was not just about economics. Colonialism had become the fast-track to political supremacy in Europe. Rival European powers convened in the German capital and in February 1885 signed the Act of Berlin – an agreement to abolish slavery and allow free trade. The act also drew new borders on the map of Africa, awarding territory to each European power – thus legalising the scramble for Africa.
But with the Second World War – which saw the peak of Europe’s dependency on African troops – a powerful genie was released from a bottle – African nationalism. The tipping point came on February 3, 1960, when Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, gave his ‘wind of change’ speech. Within 10 months, Britain had surrendered two key African territories and France 14. The rate of decolonisation when it arrived was breathtaking.
Seventeen African nations gained their independence in 1960, but the dreams of the independence era were short-lived. Africa … states of independence tells the story of some of those countries – stories of mass exploitation, of the ecstasy of independence and of how – with liberation – a new, covert scramble for resources was born.